The Common Good

Interview with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove on Friendship and Leadership

For Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, "subversive" friendship is about creating God's counterculture in the midst of a dominant culture.

ClaiborneShane Claiborne is a founding partner of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, Penn. In addition to his work with The Simple Way, Claiborne has carried his commitment to service to the poor to the streets of Calcutta with Mother Teresa and to Baghdad with the Iraq Peace Team. He is the author of several books, including The Irresistible Revolution, Jesus for President, and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, associate minister at St. John's Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., is the author of New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today's Church, To Baghdad and Beyond, and God's Economy. He lives with his family in intentional Christian community at the Rutba House in Durham. Wilson-Hartgrove is a graduate of Duke Divinity School.

Both men were educated at Eastern University in St. Davids, Penn.

This article appears courtesy of a partnership with Faith & Leadership, with whom Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove spoke about community, leadership, and how they were formed by their experiences at Eastern. To hear additional comment from the interview, click the player below.

Q: In what capacity do you see yourselves as leaders?

Claiborne: Leadership chose me more than I chose it. When we started our community we were very suspicious of leadership. We had sort of an anarchistic mantra, "a strong people need no leader"; that was pretty sweet for a week or two. We began to see that the remedy for bad leadership is not no leadership but good leadership.

[Good leadership means that] people lead in the areas where they are strong. Going in the other direction, when someone shows that they're a leader, people tend to think he or she should be in charge of everything. Instead, we try to step back and ask, "What are the things that I'm good at? What are the things you're good at? How is Christ weaving us together into the body?"

Wilson-Hartgrove: I love where Jesus overhears the disciples talking about who's going to be first, and then says, "Whoever wants to be the greatest among you must become last and the servant of all." When I was in my late teens and early 20s, Jesus didn't squash my ambition. He just said, "If you really want to be great, there's an entirely different way to go about it. You've got to become the servant of all."

Q: I want to touch on friendships that form and sustain leadership. How do you characterize the role of friendships in your leadership?

Claiborne: I think back to the circles of the prophets; the authors weren't one person as much as they were a whole school, a community of people. God was doing something among them and they tried to trace his footprints. I respect folks that had subversive friendships; I mean Dorothy Day and Peter Moore and so many others that were a part of civil rights struggles; I think of [Nelson] Mandela and [Desmond] Tutu. God doesn't just work through Lone Rangers; there's always got to be a web of friendship.

Q: Would you flesh out the "subversive" part of friendship?

Claiborne: It's about creating God's counterculture in the midst of a dominant culture. That requires forming a critical mass with different values, not around a charismatic leader but around Jesus and the values of the gospel.

Wilson-Hartgrove: In the early church, Paul was an organizer of subversive communities within the Roman Empire. [Similarly,] we live in a time where people know that something's wrong. We want to change things and it seems to me there are two options. You can try to take over the system and redo it, but I'm not real confident that I can do it any better.

The other approach is this underground movement that's going on. This is how Jesus came at it. He didn't try to drive the Romans out, but he came in and he said to people who had no power in the system, "You can begin living this kingdom that is truer than anything in this world, and you can do it right where you are." Just turn the other cheek. Start loving your neighbor. Start giving to whoever asks. That sort of conspiratorial, underground movement is what I get excited about.

Claiborne: That kind of thing creates a lot of momentum. We started doing a magazine together called "Conspire." It's done like a literary co-op; communities buy a share of it and we pull it off together. We're able to make it available for free.

We've held the People Against Poverty and Apathy (PAPA) Fest for several summers. PAPA gathers a thousand people from around the country and some internationals. We can do it for about $15,000 because there's no paid staff. Volunteers run it and everybody that comes is a contributor, whether cleaning the port-a-potties, doing childcare, teaching a workshop or playing music. As Christian disciples it's in the fabric that we are part of this body and we value community.

Wilson-Hartgrove: Gandhi had the conviction that, if you're going to present an alternative, you have to gain some independence from the structure that is oppressive. He was trained as a lawyer. He could have gotten into the system, but instead he made an intentional effort to organize people [around projects] like raising goats nonviolently. Or not relying on clothing made in English factories where people work in poor conditions. Gandhi's constructive programs have been important to me.

[to be continued...]

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